With the Covid-induced lockdown leaving thousands of India’s internal and overseas migrant workers unemployed and homeless, extreme hardship and turmoil awaited them on return to their hometowns. The challenges posed by reverse migration need urgent policy intervention to avoid occurrence of similar distress
BY VISHAL DUGGAL
India is the top origin of international migrants, having the largest diaspora of 18 million worldwide. The country also has a predominant share of internal migration with the Economic Survey of India 2017 estimating the inter-state migrant population to be 60 million.
More than two years have passed since an unprecedented migrant crisis struck the country in the wake of the outbreak of Covid-19. The nationwide lockdown announced on March 24, 2020 with immediate sealing of the inter-state and international borders left migrant workers, both domestic and overseas, in utter disarray. This triggered the reverse migration of informal migrant workers which led to scenarios of workers within India and abroad left stranded without food, livelihoods or safe places to stay and thus being desperate to return to their homes. Have we emerged wiser and learnt the right lessons from this “crisis within a crisis”?
Migration, as we know, is driven by a quest for greener pastures on the back of a competitive labour market in the destination state or country. With regard to internal migration, Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar, Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Rajasthan are among the major origin states, while Delhi, Kerala, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu are among the important destination states for these migrant workers.
A majority of low- and semi-skilled Indian migrants work in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and in South-East Asia. According to an extensive study “Challenges of reverse migration in India” by Asma Khan and H. Arokkiaraj, among the Gulf countries, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are the most favoured destination countries for the Emigration Check Required (ECR) categories from India.
Workers employed in the low-skilled, labour-intensive sectors already suffer malpractices such as wage-related abuse, working overtime without compensation, lack of social security cover and lack of protection during recruitment and employment. This vulnerable position of migrant workers was heightened further during the Covid crisis.
CHALLENGES FACED BY MIGRANTS DURING REVERSE MIGRATION
Due to the lockdown, the working class, especially the low-income migrant workers, was the worst affected. They were retrenched in large numbers, and rendered unemployed which forced them to return to their home states. They were forced to return to their villages due to unpaid wages, no place to live with basic facilities such as electricity and water provided by the contractor/employer and no immediate governmental protection.
Similar despicable conditions were experienced by Indian migrant workers in global destinations. There was an urgency to return to India among workers retrenched by private companies abroad.
Social ostracism: Migrants faced social challenges before and after the governmental repatriation. They reported instances of discrimination and being viewed as spreaders of the virus in the destination city/state, during their journey back home, in quarantine facilities and in their villages.
Even after completing the quarantine period in both the origin and destination states with proper Covid testing done, the villagers, by and large, maintained their distance from migrants. They even threatened to cut off supplies of day-to-day necessities to the migrant workers and their families on the basis of mere suspicion of their being infected with Covid-19.
LACK OF BASIC FACILITIES
Despite the strict mobility restrictions imposed by the government, the distressed internal migrants kept moving on foot or in unsanitary lorries or trucks towards their home states due to their inability to sustain themselves in the expensive urban areas. But they had to face various problems in the form of police brutality, and grievous injuries with reports of even death on account of exhaustion and dehydration.
The lack of coordination among the central and state governments resulted in thousands being stranded on various inter-state borders such as Karnataka-Maharashtra and Delhi- Uttar Pradesh.
Overseas, Indian migrant workers were stripped of their accommodation and were forced to resort to cramped shelters and unhygienic living spaces.
Increased costs for international migrants: The international migrants had to bear their fare costs during their repatriation. Most of these migrants who had low literacy level with little to no bargaining power with their employers had limited financial resources which were insufficient to bear the cost of accommodation, food and return tickets.
Some relief at last: There was increased pressure from all stakeholders as several petitions were filed in High Courts and the Supreme Court of India to rescue stranded migrants in various states/countries. Ultimately, the central government started Shramik (workers) special trains and local buses on the request of the state governments. As per the Ministry of Railways, from May 2020 onwards 4,621 Shramik specials were operated which transported 63.19 lakh passengers to their home states.
The Union government also put in place the National Migrant Information System where details of the migrants commuting via
the Shramik trains could be maintained to enable seamless communication between state governments and contact tracing if required.
However, the migrants faced great difficulties while using the special trains. They were not provided food and water or at the most got one meal on a very long journey. The train deposited them at a place several kilometres from their homes. So, they had to cover the remaining distance on their own.
Following appeals from various stakeholders and Indians stuck abroad, the central government initiated the Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) on May 7, 2020. As per the MEA, over 1,385,670 Indian nationals stranded abroad had been repatriated under the VBM until September 11, 2020. As per the country-wise and category- wise registration list of stranded Indians in foreign countries provided by the MEA, Indian workers stranded in the Gulf were the highest amongst other categories requesting repatriation. As of March 10, 2021, 3.25 million workers had been repatriated from the Gulf.
More woes for overseas migrants
The plight of the stranded Indian workers awaiting repatriation was manifold. In order to board a special flight, returnees under VBM had to buy their own high-cost flight tickets as per the central government guidelines. Further, the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare had issued guidelines prescribing 14 days of mandatory quarantine for all international arrivals with the first seven days to be spent in institutional quarantine. They had to undergo Covid-19 tests and either institutional or home quarantine.
While for internal migrants, quarantine facilities and Covid-19 testing were state-sponsored, for international migrants, the expenses for institutional quarantine and Covid-19 testing had to be paid for by the passengers themselves. To avail of exemption from institutional quarantine, they had to submit a negative RT- PCR test result, which was a costly test. It meant a major financial burden for the overseas migrants during the repatriation.
EFFORTS AT ECONOMIC REINTEGRATION
The central government did take steps to reintegrate the migrant workers in the post-Covid economy. The Ministry of Finance announced a ₹ 1.70 lakh crore ($ 22.8 billion) relief package for the vulnerable sections, including migrants. It urged the state governments to mobilise the Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Welfare Fund which would benefit around 35 million construction workers registered under it.
Also, one-time immediate cash benefits of ₹ 1,000 to 5,000 ($13.59 to $67.12) and free rations through the Public Distribution System (PDS) were announced by several state governments such as UP, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Subsequently, the Ministry of Finance announced another relief package of ₹ 20 lakh crore ($270 billion approximately) to benefit migrant workers, self-employed and small traders. The government announced that the ‘One nation one ration card’ scheme was to be implemented across India in 2021 to enable migrants to access rations from any fair price shop in India using a digital card. MGNREGA, a rural employment scheme promising 100 days of work, witnessed a sudden increase in registrations (around 3.5 million workers) between April 1 and May 20, 2020.
The central government announced a ₹ 50,000-crore ($6.9 billion) ‘Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan’ which comprised skill mapping of migrant workers and connecting women with self-help groups for enhancing employment opportunities. The government also announced it would conduct an All India Survey on Migrant Workers and develop a National Database of Unorganised Workers (NDUW), which would include details of the migrants such as name, occupation, address, educational qualifications and skill type, in order to secure employability and social security benefits for the inter-state migrant workers.
Poor implementation of relief measures: The internal migrants reported sparse coverage of the government relief package as only a few received immediate cash benefits. Some received no free rations as they did not have ration cards, or their name was not included in the family’s ration card or they were not present to authenticate fingerprints on the biometric machine as they had migrated to other states, which hinted at the non-portability of benefits. As per the data of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, almost 11 states distributed less than 1% of foodgrains allocated to them. Also, an RTI disclosure said that only 10% of the ₹ 20 lakh crore stimulus package was distributed.
Migrants, in general, were unable to find secure employment in their villages; they were willing to remigrate to the urban areas or work under the same contractors/employers who were not kind towards them when the lockdown commenced. As for the international migrants, almost all of them were willing to remigrate abroad once the restrictions eased both in India and in the destination countries. Most of them were eager to remigrate rather than stay back in their native states due to low wages, inability to find suitable jobs and lack of governmental support for economic integration.
During the Covid-19 crisis, the migrant workers, both internal and international, were pushed to the periphery. Due to the sudden lockdown, shutting down of workplaces, hotels, construction work and other sectors, migrants were rendered wageless and homeless.
The Covid-induced migrant crisis magnified the common phenomenon of wage theft. The irresponsibility displayed by the employers, rampant wage thefts and forceful retrenchment in large numbers of both internal and international migrant workers added to their misery. Migrant remittances provide an economic lifeline to poor households in many countries; a reduction in remittance flows could increase poverty and reduce households’ access to much-needed health services.
There is a need to work on these aspects to make both internal and international migration a smooth and safe process where all the stakeholders benefit especially in a post-crisis situation.
The Covid crisis accentuated several pre-existing problems faced by the migrant communities. As a result, they suffered invariably at different stages of their reverse migration including xenophobic, discriminatory treatment, which calls for greater vigilance against such practices. This crisis, therefore, should be used as an opportunity to bring positive measures and ensure their implementation through strong political will.
The governments need to address the challenges by including the migrant workers in health services, cash transfers and other social programmes, and protecting them from discrimination.
For effective reintegration of the internal and international migrants in the post-Covid economy, efforts need to be made for collecting latest data, job creation which matches their skill set, inclusion in welfare schemes, portability of social security benefits and reducing the migration costs for international migrants. To formulate a comprehensive, futuristic policy, the government needs to rope in civil society, NGOs and voluntary organisations which have a good outreach with the migrant communities at the grassroots level.
NATIONAL CONCLAVE ON SAFE MIGRATION
As migration trends continue to evolve, accompanied by unprecedented challenges, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in partnership with Government of India think-tank NITI Aayog organised a National Conclave on March 29, 2022 in New Delhi, followed by a Media Roundtable on March 30, 2022, to initiate collaborative efforts towards a sustainable, safe, secure and orderly model of migration.
During the conclave, different states shared good practices and lessons learned during the critical stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. The deliberations also sought to develop an understanding of the invaluable nature of a multi-stakeholder participatory approach like partnerships with the private sector for responsible recruitment of migrant workers.
NITI Aayog’s draft “National Policy Framework on Migrant Labour” also came up for discussion in view of the need for combined action by states of origin and states of destination for the safety of migrant workers. The conclave’s agenda also included promotion of better understanding of, and response to, needs and challenges of female migrants in the supply chain of the garment industry.
The conclave saw active participation from eminent personalities including Sanjay Awasthi, head, IOM’s mission in India; Sarat Dash, chief of mission of Sri Lanka and Maldives and IOM DG’s special envoy to India and Bhutan, and Dr Muniraju S.B., deputy adviser, NITI Aayog. The diverse groups and individuals who had gathered as primary stakeholders to engage in dialogue, deliberation and decision-making epitomised a whole-of-society approach in migration management efforts.
Reflecting on the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic, which resulted in a 2.2% decline in global remittances in 2020, Dash talked about migrant workers’ resilience. Despite compounding of “vulnerabilities due to their socio- economic status, suboptimal living environments, eligibility or access to services including health services, cultural or linguistic barriers at their destinations, migrant workers still contributed $702 million compared to $718 million in 2019,” he said. Dr Muniraju shed light on the numerous initiatives of the government, like constitution of several committees under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, collaborative efforts with UN agencies and NGOs, and launching of a fund of almost ₹ 1.7 lakh crore to help the committees of the economically disadvantaged states.
Session 1 of the conclave comprised detailed presentations by representatives from the state labour departments of Maharashtra, Odisha, Telangana, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Haryana. Each state acknowledged the stiff challenges during the lockdown and the innovative ways in which their resources were mobilised to maximise protective cover to migrant workers.
Session 2 delved into partnerships and collaborations with the private sector, including export houses, global brands, supply chains, labour recruitment agents and agencies, NGOs and CSOs. Dr Surabhi Singh, India Centre for Migration, MEA, as the chair of the session, commended the practices of the public and private organisations, saying that “the need is to coordinate strategies and not have fragmented practices”.
Session 3, a panel discussion on “A National Policy for Protection and Welfare of Migrant Workers”, demonstrated the solution-seeking and sustaining capacity of stakeholders through appropriate and timely mobilisation of resources for the benefit of migrant workers.
Lastly, recommendations for robust policies through programmes and partnerships for the protection of children were made, especially in light of Covid-19 that disrupted child protection networks.
Concluding the event, Awasthi said, “Migration is an international issue and with the pandemic the crisis only accelerated manifold. Through this conclave, IOM aims to create awareness about the challenges faced by migrant workers and develop best practices with the help of stakeholders, to be adopted for their safety and welfare.” (ANI)